Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we’re checking our feeds.
It seems like everyone — except you, possibly — is baking gorgeous loaves of sourdough bread during quarantine. While you’re struggling to figure out why your starter isn’t rising, they’re researching add-ins, studying all the relevant YouTube videos, and somehow managing to stock up on flour even though finding it feels like scoring a Switch. Now their crunchy, adequately risen results are all over your Instagram feed. And they’re perfect.
Well, most of them.
While the majority of sourdough posts show off good bread, there’s also a cohort of posters who are brave enough to show their — yes, that’s right — bad bread. Usually these bad breads are early attempts: They’ve collapsed from over-proofing, or they’re rock-hard with raw centers, or they have not a single air pocket. And while they may not be as pretty, they’re just as important.
Colleen Kmiecik, a 44-year-old marketing manager in Troy, Michigan, is one of these valiant sharers. In mid-April, she posted her own failed bread on Facebook and the subreddit r/Sourdough, a community where amateur bakers trade tips.
While an accomplished amateur baker herself, Kmiecik had never tried making sourdough before, and she’d had trouble: Despite painstaking effort, her loaf came out flat and hard, yet somehow still raw in the center. It was inedible.
“The funniest thing was that when I threw it into the trash can — because I had no other option — it made the loudest noise,” Kmiecik said in an interview. “Think about throwing bread into a trash can. It shouldn’t even make a sound. I just laughed because it was so far from what I had expected.”
Kmiecik said that when she posted the image to Reddit, the comments she received were quite serious. (r/Sourdough, like many subreddits, can get pretty intense.) “I can imagine it must have been heartbreaking,” reads one post.
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While Kmiecik wasn’t all-out devastated that her bread didn’t turn out — in fact, she laughed much of the way through her retelling — she knows where that commenter was coming from.
“It was a little bit heartbreaking because I was so excited,” she said.
On Facebook, she received a different kind of support: good-natured ribbing. “People were writing that it was cool that I tried,” she said. “Someone said something like: “Yep, that looks pretty inedible, and I’m a guy who will eat anything.'”
Kmiecik appreciated those remarks, too. “Now more than ever we need to support each other’s first attempts even if they turn out not-so-pretty or inedible,” she said.
Photos like Kmiecik’s are funny to look at, admittedly. We can all agree that while celebrating someone else’s failure is a bad look, a flat hunk of bread that took days to make is at least a little comical. However, these images aren’t just comedy fodder: They can also genuinely motivate people looking to get into bread-making themselves. They depict failure as not only part of the process, but also part of a fun universal experience.
In a 2019 story for Quartz, Sarah Todd analyzes the show Nailed It — in which normal-folks contestants attempt to replicate complicated baked goods with predictably disastrous results — through the lens of failure. She argues that the show expresses its joy in the “solidarity of messing up.” Failed creations are “eminently lovable” all on their own, in part because viewers know that, if they were on the show, they’d probably mess up, too.
She cites critical theorist Jack Halberstam, whose book The Queer Art of Failure argues that embracing failed projects prompts us to empathize with those who are doing the failing, feeling camaraderie with them instead of the “success stories” we’re socialized to admire. This fosters a collective bond: “All losers,” Halberstam wrote, “are the heirs of those who lost before them.”
“We need to support each other’s first attempts.”
Dr. Mike Taveirne, a microbiologist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University, believes that sharing these losses — or “unexpected results” — can be instrumental in not only understanding a scientific process, but also getting closer to one’s desired outcome. In fact, he’s uniquely suited to speak on the internet’s collective sourdough project: He’s in the middle of that experiment himself.
Taveirne was inspired to post his own sourdough mishap after reading a tweet from his colleague Dave Baltrus. “There’s no way everyone’s bread looks that good,” reads the tweet. “I think we’re severely undercounting the terrible bread fails.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed this too: On an internet where aesthetic pleasure is king, the prettiest bread gets the spotlight often, even though failed bread displays useful clues about how to do better next time (and, though it’s beside the point, is often perfectly edible).
Taveirne interpreted the tweet as “part of an ongoing discussion about what gets published in scientific papers,” he explained via email. “Most of the time, in a published manuscript, we discuss in detail the experiments that worked; the experiments that gave clear and definitive results providing the answers to our research questions. We usually don’t discuss the experiments that ‘didn’t work’ but were critical in setting the stage for the ones that did.”
When we do discuss those experiments, though, it’s to our collective benefit. Baltrus’ original tweet inspired a lively mini-community in the replies, where people continue to share bread-making advice nearly a week after the original post. And Kmiecik will continue making sourdough, in part because she’s seen encouraging progress from her r/Sourdough predecessors — especially the ones who didn’t succeed right away.
“I saw that a couple of people tried six times before they finally got it,” she said. She plans to follow in their footsteps, but first she’ll feed her starter for a few more days. Then she’ll give another loaf a try.
Quarantine has given her extra time to experiment, she explained, so giving up isn’t really a possibility. “I love sourdough,” she said. “I just want to be able to say that at least once in my life, I made edible sourdough bread.”
She (and you) might need that extra time, and that’s OK. Taveirne underscored that, like all scientific endeavors, making sourdough is a process. In fact, he’s currently testing starter cultures from several types of flour to see which one leads to the best bread. It’ll take however long it takes.
“I think it’s important to know that the scientific process is long [and] slow, but rewarding,” he said. “Paying close attention to small details really matters.”
If he gets more unexpected results, he says, he’ll just eat a lot of French toast.